On This Day in Cabinet History – December 31, 1793

On this day in cabinet history, December 31, 1793, Thomas Jefferson resigned as the first Secretary of State. Many people are familiar with Jefferson’s resignation because of the political ramifications of his decision. Jefferson’s “retirement” coincided with his increased efforts to organize the nascent Democratic-Republican Party and fight the Federalist agenda. But Jefferson’s departure from the administration also had numerous implications for the president’s cabinet and the development of the institution.thomas jefferson

First, Jefferson’s retirement left the cabinet in new political territory. As the new Secretary of State, Edmund Randolph did he best to evaluate matters impartially, sometimes favoring the Federalist position, sometimes selecting the Republican position. The remaining secretaries, and the new Attorney General William Bradford, were ardent Federalists. Furthermore, President George Washington recognized the polarization of society and resented the partisan criticism leveled at his administration. In future appointments, Washington refused to consider any nominees that did not support the government. When considering candidates for Attorney General in October 1795, he expressed his approval for names that had been ” a steady friend to the general government since it has been in operation.” [1] Future presidents followed Washington’s example and only appointed secretaries from their own party.

Second, with Jefferson gone, the individuals in Washington’s cabinet took on different roles. Edmund Randolph became the new Secretary of State and assumed a larger position in cabinet deliberations. As Secretary of State, Randolph naturally took on more responsibility within the administration, but Washington also increasingly turned to his long-time friend for advice. After Knox retired in December 1794 and Hamilton followed in January 1795, Randolph was the only remaining secretary from the beginning of Washington’s presidency. Washington clearly trusted Randolph more than the replacement secretaries and included him in private deliberations. In early 1795, Washington received the Jay Treaty (a new commercial treaty with Great Britain negotiated by Supreme Court Justice John Jay). After the Senate ratified the treaty, Washington agonized over whether to sign it himself. He initially shared the contents of the treaty with Randolph, but none of the other secretaries. [2]ed-randolph

Third, as a result of the changing personnel in the cabinet, the institution’s role also shifted. Washington no longer convened cabinet meetings every time he wanted to discuss an issue. He consulted with Randolph and requested written advice more frequently. From 1795-1795, Washington only summoned 11 cabinet meetings (compared to the 51 meetings in 1793 and 29 meetings in 1794. Perhaps Washington had less need for cabinet deliberations. He had already established many precedents and trusted his own judgment. But there is no doubt that the new secretaries were a “B Team” that Washington preferred to keep on the bench. In 1798, Washington described Secretary of War James McHenry’s unfitness for office: “His talents were unequal to great exertions, or deep resources.” [3]

Although many factors contributed to this important cabinet developments, Jefferson’s retirement served as a catalyst for these changes and remains and important event in cabinet history.

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[1] George Washington to Alexander Hamilton, 29 October 1795, The Papers of Alexander Hamilton, ed. Harold C. Syrett (New York: Columbia University Press, 1973), 10: 355-363.

[2] Edmund Randolph to John Adams, 2 April 1795, Founders Online, National Archives, Early Access Document: http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Adams/99-02-02-1661. 

[3] George Washington to Alexander Hamilton, 9 August 1798, The Papers of Alexander Hamilton, 22: 62-64.

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